Humaning with Tracie Sponenberg, CPO of The Granite Group

Published
August 1, 2023
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Hybrid Work
AI
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Humaning with Tracie Sponenberg, CPO of The Granite Group

TL;DR Article Summary

Welcome to Humaning! In this new monthly blog series, we interview visionary HR and People Leaders on how they build human connection and vibrant hybrid work cultures that drive employee satisfaction, engagement, and business results.

Enjoy the second installment of Humaning with Tracie Sponenberg, Chief People Officer of The Granite Group! 

What makes your hybrid work strategy unique?

We’re adapting a traditional brick-and-mortar business to the hybrid world. Our branches are essentially retail, so much of our team has to be in person, face-to-face with our customers. Our corporate office (or as we call it “Central Services”) was fully in-person prior to the pandemic, but now we span everything from remote to fully in person, with the vast majority being hybrid.  

Hybrid work has helped us solve some serious space challenges as we grow, and also helped us to recruit and retain. 

But for us, it’s more than the word hybrid—we lean into flexibility, whether you have to be customer-facing every day or do your job from Hawaii. While many of our team members can’t be remote, we can be flexible with them.

What are the biggest hybrid work challenges companies face?

The three big C’s: Communication, Collaboration and Culture. There are certainly others, but these are the ones I tend to think of as we bridge geographic divides to unite our team.  

While we now have remote and hybrid team members, we have also been geographically dispersed for more than 50 years. These two concepts aren’t that different. We were already used to video conferencing! And used to making in-person time purposeful and meaningful

We’ve been bringing people together from different geographic areas in person, virtually, and culturally through various methods of collaboration for decades. For this reason, we were somewhat prepared for what the last three years brought us.

How can organizations better balance employees’ demands for flexibility with business objectives?

This is woven into the fabric of our culture. When managing remote or hybrid teams effectively, you have to first set clear expectations

This includes being clear about what is expected of each team member, and tying it back to the overall goals of the team and company. It’s also important to be clear about the communication and collaboration tools that will be used, and how work will be assigned and tracked.

Then it’s critical to actually train managers on how to work with employees working in a variety of locations. This includes how to provide regular check-ins and feedback, how to manage performance; and how to deal with potential challenges, such as time zone and communication differences.

It’s important to focus on results, not where someone sits—and on what gets done, instead of where and when it gets done. This means that managers shouldn’t micromanage their teams, but instead focus on providing them with the resources and support they need to be successful. Managers should also be open to feedback from their teams, and willing to make changes as needed.

Companies are calling for employees to RTO to foster better work culture. How do you drive a culture of connectedness?

Because we’ve nearly always been geographically dispersed, we have been learning how to foster a connected work culture for decades—with trust as the foundation. One of our core values is entrepreneurial. We trust our individual locations to know what to do, to do it well, and to treat their people and customers as valued members of the TGG community! 

Also, regular visits to all of our locations from our executive and leadership team members really helps to drive a culture of connectedness. Our CEO personally visits each of our 60 locations a few times a year! 

I bring my team together in person at least every two weeks. I have people who are on-site every day, some remote, and some hybrid. There’s something about physically sitting with someone, reading body language, and laughing together. We didn’t have that for a long time; and now that we do, it’s even more special to gather in person, in a way that makes sense for the team and company. It’s important to have people feel like they want to be there versus have to be there.

Now, when we go in for meetings or just popping into someone’s office, it’s a joy! It brings back the joy of work that was gone for so long. When we’re in the office, we create opportunities to casually catch up. We have meals together. We have walking meetings to Starbucks. I didn’t realize how much I missed those. 

How are you ensuring equity between in-office and out-of-office employees?

As companies, we need to be more flexible and inclusive. Our culture has to bridge the gap between in-office, hybrid, and remote team members, and treat all as valuable members of the team—because they are!

I’ll give you a great example. We do quarterly meetings, or what a lot of companies refer to as town halls. It gives the whole company the state of the business, including strategic initiative updates. We hosted one the other day in our Central Services (corporate) location. 

This meeting was hybrid, so our teams could join no matter where they were sitting that day. Everyone can participate—whether they are present in the room or up on a large screen—and see our CEO present and ask questions. This isn’t unusual for a lot of large companies but for us, it was. And it’s really a wonderful way to bring people together. 

We also have virtual training opportunities which ensure our hybrid and remote teams have equal access to learning. We also solicit feedback—often—from our team. That way, we can ensure we’re really meeting their needs.

How do you continue to iterate and improve the hybrid employee experience? 

It’s simple. We talk to people. Open and honest conversations go a long way. I think the toughest part of the transition to hybrid is how each employee responds to change. Some of our long-time team members—some with tenures of 40+ years—think everyone should be in the office every day. 

When faced with these comments, we engage in conversation, find out why they’re feeling this way, and don’t try to diminish their feelings by saying  “working at home isn’t always great!” That doesn’t help. 

We realize this is a new way of work for many people. So it’s most effective to manage the change and speak openly about it. We show long-time team members that many people can do their job from anywhere, and it helps us recruit and retain great people that contribute to our great culture.

Things change. Some may not like it, but technology makes working in different ways so much easier than when they started. And we need to embrace that.

I also love what Gen Z is bringing to the workforce. In general, they demand transparency, openness, feedback, and a truly balanced life. Young people seem more confident asking for these things than I did as a Gen Xer and I really think they are changing the world of work for the better.

What do you predict will be the same/different about work 10-15 years from now? Will AI play a significant role in HR?

No one knows what the future holds, so I don’t love to make predictions. But I do know that AI, and specifically Generative AI, is going to impact the workforce and HR—both positively and negatively—in a way that I haven’t seen in my entire career. 

I’m excited for it, and also wary of it. My advice to HR professionals is to not be afraid of AI. Learn it, so you don’t fall behind. 

Companies will soon prefer to hire people with GenAI as a skill. AI will not replace you, but you may be replaced with someone who knows how to harness it. I also think AI will actually force more human interaction, and automate the most time-consuming parts of the employee experience for HR and People Ops professionals. 

AI is going to free up HR to focus on the creative work and the strategic work. AI will free us up to be more human.

To learn more about ways to solve your hybrid work challenges, see how the Top 20 CPOs Shaping Hybrid Work do it at their organizations.

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